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Many Seattle restaurants are too small to fail right now. That doesn’t mean they will not close during the COVID-19 pandemic — several already have. What it means is that independent restaurants are usually the primary source of income and life savings of the people who own them. And, as such, everything relies on keeping them going.
My wife and I own and operate Spice Waala, an Indian street food restaurant on Capitol Hill. As immigrants from India, we looked for a way to share our culture and to dismantle stereotypes connected to Indian food, helping diners discover the intricacy of flavors and textures. This desire has pushed us forward from a small pop-up at South Lake Union’s Saturday Market in 2018 to opening our storefront in April of last year, and it would not have come to fruition without financial support from our friends and family.
But we grossly underestimated the investment needed to open and operate the restaurant. We quickly exhausted the money we raised and our personal savings account. We often found ourselves calculating how much longer we could defer credit card payments based on when income would be coming in. Fast-forward to summer 2020, and we are nowhere near recouping the investment we made.
Despite the challenges of staying afloat during the pandemic, we know that if Spice Waala goes bust, all our savings would be gone with it. There’s no looking back, and no option to fail.
And we are not alone. Many other restaurants in the city are in our position: independent restaurants owned by families. And as such, they cannot afford for the restaurant to fail. Like us, owners and families may end up going bankrupt or worse. Typically, they are not backed by institutional investors that give them a degree of separation from the financial damage of economic downturns.
They also usually do not have enough spare money in the bank to cut their losses and go “do something else.” And they can’t wait and rely on relief packages, such as the Small Business Administration’s Paycheck Protection Program. Such money, which comes with its own complications, is too little too late.
The only thing left to do is innovate and take risks during the current crisis. Some restaurants started providing basic items such as toilet paper with customer purchases, some started selling produce, and some changed their entire concept (e.g., moving from fine dining to selling meal kits). All of these efforts helped restaurants hustle to meet the rapidly changing environment and stand out from the crowd.
When Gov. Jay Inslee announced Washington’s stay-at-home order in March, we were in a state of panic and despair at Spice Waala. We kept thinking through our options. The first thought that likely crossed many restaurateurs’ minds was to close their doors, since there wouldn’t be enough money coming in to survive.
In the economics of a restaurant, payroll and rent are the two big-ticket expenses every month, so shutting down and laying off employees is a so-called “easy” way to save the business. But we couldn’t afford to close with six employees relying on their income and not enough cash in the bank to last more than a few weeks. Ultimately, we doubled down on the core values of our business, which was to serve authentic Indian food, invest in our employees, and give back to our community.
Before the pandemic began, our restaurant primarily focused on street food from Delhi and Kolkata, particularly kathi rolls and chaat. But since the beginning of March, we have expanded our offerings, introducing new items that represent different regions of India. These include chicken momos (steamed dumplings served across Tibet, Nepal, and North India), coconut curry with shrimp (a staple in many coastal Indian communities like Goa and Kolkata), and fried chicken with bold flavors from the Jama Masjid alleys of New Delhi.
The conditions during the pandemic have pushed us to go outside our comfort zone, serving food that we may not have tried under “normal” circumstances, since it’s difficult to predict how popular the dishes will be. But the shift also helped the business by still providing individual meals at affordable prices (always less than $15) to customers who may need to be more frugal during this pandemic, or who just want some comfort food. Our customers have responded favorably so far.
Still, taking care of staff remained paramount. We asked our employees if they were comfortable continuing to work (some opted out). For those who wanted to keep working, we didn’t cut hours or pay like a lot of other restaurants. Our management team first analyzed our cash flow and understood how many weeks we could last without any revenue, while paying full salaries.
We created a list of expenses (including payroll) we would cut in order of priority, just in case we needed to. We did eliminate some line items in the budget, like marketing, but every dollar earned was a dollar that delayed decisions of cutting payroll, and every week that passes we breathe a little sigh of relief. We’ve been fortunate to honor this commitment so far, but we know how tough it is to choose between making payroll or paying rent. And the pandemic is nowhere near over.
Meanwhile, the third tenet of our business — taking care of the community — looms large. Food access in Seattle had been a problem long before COVID-19. In fact, the pandemic has only accentuated the issue, with unemployment rising and food banks running low. We had started Spice Waala with the idea that for-profit businesses and social responsibility are not opposing forces, but could be integrated into the same business model so that one drives the other.
Before COVID, we partnered with community organizations like Rainier Valley Food Bank and Asian Counseling Referral Services to provide food for those in need and address issues of food justice. Every month, we would announce a partnership, and profits from a specific food item on our menu would be donated toward that organization.
Since COVID, we’ve evolved our community partnership to serve free meals to anyone who needs them directly from our restaurant and via our partner Community Lunch on Capitol Hill. We call this program #Bhojan, which means a meal or feast in Hindi. Customers have rallied around this and made donations for the program via Venmo and PayPal, which will allow us to continue the effort for the foreseeable future. So far, we’ve been able to give out over 6,000 meals. We hope this sets an example for others and we hope to see more restaurants integrate food programs into their business models. The impact in every city could be immense.
We aren’t sure what the future holds. While Seattle is in phase two of the state’s “Safe Start” reopening plan, we don’t know when customers will feel fully comfortable dining in restaurants again. Mandates from Washington and the city of Seattle will evolve with time — and restaurants will have to evolve accordingly, in phase two and beyond. But what is certain is that restaurants will have to stay true to their principles during this period of adaptation. We will also keep hustling, because that’s what small businesses do.